The Heat is on New Delhi


The crackdown on Tibetans in India may backfire by provoking rather than preventing martyrs

Jason Burke, South Asia Correspondent, The Guardian

Burning anger Jamphel Yeshi
Burning anger: Jamphel Yeshi, Photo: AFP

THE PICTURE is horrific. A man running as he burns. But Jamphel Yeshi, 27, the exile who died on 28 March after setting himself on fire in Delhi two days earlier to protest Chinese policies in his homeland, is only the latest of 30 or so Tibetans over the past 13 months to commit self-immolation.

This is, of course, an atrociously painful way to die. In Dharamsala last week, exiles were agonising over the sheer suffering of those the posters up around the city refer to as ‘martyrs’. “If you are just struck by a spark from a match, it hurts. Imagine what it feels like to be engulfed in flames,” one said.

It is also spectacular. There is a good reason for this. The English-language word ‘martyr’ comes from the ancient Greek word for witness. To be a witness, you need an audience. This is violence — even to oneself rather than others — as a means of communication. It would be recognised by many other political and religious extremists as such too. The Arabic word for martyr — shaheed — is also derived from the verb meaning to “bear testament” or “be a witness”. The European anarchists and Leftists of the late 19th century, who pioneered modern terrorism, would call the terrible non-violent violence of the self-immolations as “propaganda by deed”. So too perhaps would those who have carried out similar acts for the sake of Telangana or caste. Mohammed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation sparked the Arab revolts, certainly would.

As for the current wave of Tibetan ‘martyrs’, most, like Yeshi, were in their teens or 20s and came from the eastern parts of the historical area of Tibet, outside the current ‘Tibetan Autonomous Region’. Unlike most of them, Yeshi is a layman, not a monk, and was already in exile.

Other examples include Tsering Kyi, a 20-year-old student of nomad origins from a village in Gansu province, Jamyang Palden, a 34-year-old monk at the monastery in Rebkong and Sonam Dhargyal, a 44-year-old farmer from Rebkong. Kyi and Palden are described by relatives and friends as bright, confident and outgoing. In contrast, Dhargyal comes across as more troubled. Taciturn and withdrawn, he was a deeply religious “man of few words”, according to a teacher who knew him well.

Instead of searching for personal traits or clues in their lifestyle to explain why some become involved in extreme acts of political or religious violence, another approach is more illuminating. There is clearly the overall environment in which someone becomes an activist. In Tibet, there is rising discontent with the Dalai Lama’s policy of the “Middle Way”. Many say that the reasonable, compassionate approach of their spiritual leader has won nothing for the Tibetans. Overt violence against Chinese authorities — or even people — is obviously not an option either. So spectacular violence against oneself is a tactic that becomes attractive. This is especially true given the roiling unrest that has wracked Tibet since the major uprisings of the spring of 2008 and Beijing’s tough reaction to it.

Other factors also play a role. A document smuggled out of Palden’s monastery, lists forced resettlement of Tibetan nomads, increased regulation of religious practice and heavy patrolling of Tibetan-dominated towns as factors in the monk’s decision to self-immolate.

Significantly, all the self-immolations — with the exception of a few outliers such as that in Delhi — have largely clustered in a few specific areas. These are certainly where repression by the authorities has been particularly harsh and also where a marginally more permissive regime allows freer access to the Internet and thus higher levels of awareness of protest elsewhere. This indicates that the hardline stand taken by Delhi Police in recent days — the major crackdown on all Tibetans in the capital — may backfire by provoking rather than preventing the sort of acts the authorities so want to avoid.

But also, these clusters have developed because, as with any kind of trend or behaviour, after a while, the self-immolations generate a momentum within any given community. The key here is the tacit encouragement offered by the support of peers, relatives and elders. The local reaction to each death, rather than the international reaction, is what is crucial. From this perspective, neither the silence of India on Tibet, shameful though many may believe it is, nor the continuing lack of real attention from the global community, matters much.

As long as the self-immolators are seen as tragic but admirable martyrs in the streets of Dharamsala, Machu County or Delhi’s ‘Little Tibet’, there will be more pictures as horrific as that of the running, burning man in Delhi.


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